The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

I was the giant great and still,
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane

From the Poem – The Land of Counterpane – by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894.)

It was during the year 1971, when we, as nine-year-old kids, joined the fifth grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (located in Tamil Nadu, India), that I first heard the word ‘Counterpane.’ For some of you too, it must be a Baader-Meinhof.

I have often been Baader-Meinhofed by Sashi Tharoor with his eloquent English vocabulary, many a times forcing my fingers to caress my cellphone to search for the meaning of the word.

Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information⁠ – often an unfamiliar word or name⁠ – and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

On the day that we joined the school, late Mrs Mercy Mathai, our Matron, ushered us into our dormitory. We were allotted a hall with 12 beds laid out with military precision. Every bed was covered with a thick cotton sheet with our school colours – a steel grey background with four blood red lines running near its four borders in such a manner that the inner lines fell along the border of the mattress. These lines caught my attention and I presumed that the four lines represented the four houses for cadets named after the four famous Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava. I was assigned to the Pandya House.

Addressing her new wards, Mrs Mathai said “This is your bed and it is covered with a counterpane. Before you go to bed, each of you will fold it neatly and place it at the foot-board. You will not use it to cover yourself at night. For that there is a blanket near the foot-board.”

Was I Baader-Meinhofed?  I did not understand a word as I knew only Malayalam. 

I was introduced to the term ‘Counterpane‘ in Sainik School. I presumed that counterpane was of British origin, but, oddly, never came across the term later at the military academies, in India. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised when my colleague Major Rajib Basu in 1989 at Devlali, Baader-Meinhofed me when he referred to his bed cover as a “counterpane!” He had graduated from the residential Lawrence School, Lovedale. The term was very common with many ‘public-schools’ in and around Ooty.

Counterpane is a modification of the word Counterpoint, from Old French word Contrepointe, meaning a quilted mattress.

The humid warm sultry days all through the year at Aamaravathi Nagar was a bit tough, especially without air conditioning. Why?  There were no fans even.  Windows were thrown open in our dorm to bring in whatever breeze we could catch. The breeze brought with it fine dust particles and there was the counterpane, discharging its duty to protect my bed from this dust. 

We carried our counterpanes to our senior dorms in grade 9, where we had a cabin allotted for each cadet.

The counterpane protected the mattress and the blankets.  How often do we clean or wash our mattress and blankets?  Today the counterpane has been relegated to be an unnecessary addition that just ends up tangled at the bed’s foot-board.

Try using a counterpane to cover your bed during day and you will end up with a clean bed in the evening.  You may find yourself having the best sleep of your life!

In those days many military stations were not authorised fans.  Most military stations were established by the British and were at cooler and greener hill stations. Blame it on climate change or global warming, most military stations now are authorised air conditioners.  I have seen it all.

We had to fold our counterpane every evening prior to retreating to our bed. It was a sin to use it to cover our body at night with it – all because it may lead to skin rashes due to aberration with the dust particles it carried.

Next morning, we had to neatly spread the counterpane on our beds, tuck it in at the rear end, ensuring that the four red lines ran all along the mattress border and leave our dorms for the Physical Training (PT.)  Our mornings commenced with making our bed, spreading the counterpane and the last action before going to bed was folding the counterpane.

Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556, 1974/Chera) reminisces:- In the late sixties and early seventies, counterpanes in school dorms came in varying colour combinations, but the patterns were pleasant and same.

Some of the nine- and ten-year-old 5th and 6th grade boys, still wetted their beds. The counterpanes were a great cover up, though sometimes the smell gave them away.  As they grew older, the counterpanes again covered the sins of some of the adolescent kids, who had adolescent dreams or indulged in porn.

Lieutenant Colonel AC Thamburaj, Principal, introduced the system of inspections. Every alternate Mondays, the dorms and cabins were inspected by the Principal, Headmaster, and the dorm staff. Dusting of closets and bookshelves, sweeping out the dirt, hanging all dresses rolled and thrown under the beds and the over mosquito nets, tight hanging of the mosquito net, washing the socks that smelt like dead rats, blancoing the canvas shoes that were white two weeks ago, changing the pillow case and bed sheet and hiding away unauthorised toys, bugs, pets that lived in the closet…the list was endless; but always ended up with the neat spreading of counterpanes over the well-made bed without any wrinkles.

There were some good wardens like Krishnaswami, Narayanaswami and Govindarajan. There was one scoundrel we feared the most: ‘Karunakaran.’ In 1967, he was with Chola House, and in 1968 became a shared one between Chera and Chola Junior houses. He always found out the exact one item we tried to hide under the mattress or at the bottom shelf of closet. In later years at the military academy, Karunakaran’s training kept me safe from the Divisional Officers during cabin cupboard inspections.

The Counterpanes in School had a tag showing it was manufactured by ‘ChenTex‘ – a cooperative at Chennimalai near Tiruppur and Kangeyam. Chentex, a Weavers Cooperative Society was established in 1941 and is leading on manufacturer of bed covers, bed sheets, bed spreads, cotton bath towels etc. The Society sells within India and also exports to European countries.

We got so used to counterpanes, that a beds without them, always looked incomplete.

Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579, 1974/Pallava) writes: – The legacy of counterpane continued right through our lives I would say … just that over the years it got transformed into a bed cover with greater elegance than the one we had at School …the purpose was the same!!

To me a more important lesson was that of making the bed as one got up early morn each day – at school as Reji said we had to make our bed and cover it with the ‘Counterpane’ before even we got to get going with the morning routine. Some of us left hastily, only to return from PT to find our matron frowning upon the ‘les miserable’ who had left his bed in the same state of rest!!!!

Soon the habit of making one’s bed kicked in and it became second nature to me … and have carried it till today … my wife Zarina and kids fail to understand why I remain paranoid with an unmade bed – and why I hurry to make the bed even as the sun is only just rising!!

That is a habit with a lesson!! In that, one commenced the day with a small doable task … it made it then mentally possible to continue doing small/big tasks through the day. Also importantly, when one returned late at night from work etc – one came back to a clean and made bed – which by itself was a blessing to crawl into after a long day at work!!

It has become so ingrained that I would make the bed even in a guest room or hotel room – at least set the bed in order and place all items at its designated place…. Believe me ..even as I got up this morn at 5.30 ..I first made my bed – my side of the bed !!!

For many of us even today – Amaravathi Nagar remains The Pleasant Land of Counterpane.

Images courtesy M Balaajhi, (Roll Number 4574, 2010/Pandya) and Ashok Prabhu, (Roll Number3499, 2002/Pandya.)

Book Review : Golf and Life : by Veteran Major General Anil Sengar

Congratulations to the author for a well researched book – fusing golf and leadership seamlessly.  The book is worth a read, even for someone like me who hardly ever stepped into a golf course. If you have not stepped on to a Golf Course or does not understand the Golf jargon, this book is for you!!

The catchphrase of the book – ‘The Past is in Your Head and the Future is in Your Hands’ – showcases what the book is all about.

The author has used his distinctive narrative style to lead the reader through the 18 Holes of a Golf Course – the Life Course – all accompanied by a tinge of humour and at places sarcasm too.  Owning a set of Golf Clubs, a membership to a Golf Club, or merely playing golf does not make one a golfer – far from being a good golfer.  It is all about hard work, dedication and endless hours spent at the Golf Course. All to achieve that ever-elusive perfection.

The journey of life – how to deal with different situations and people – and what one can contribute to the society is well brought out.  At every instance, the author delves into the need to ensure that one equips well with the best quality tools.  There is no point in blaming the tools in hand.  A poor artist ends up blaming his brush. What one achieves in life is all because of equipping correctly, planning well, and practising a lot.  The author has chronicled this journey of life through the actions of an enthusiastic golfer Kay El who wants to achieve success, but not through hard work alone.  One comes across many Kay Els in life, and one has also become a Kay El on many occasions.

The need to be fair – whether on the Golf Course or on the Course of Life – is well enunciated throughout the book.  One quote that sums up this aspect which all readers would like to follow is ‘Anything that threatens your peaceful sleep, peace of mind and reputation, as a man of trust and credibility is not worth any wealth or reward.’

Leadership is all about being truthful to oneself, especially while no one is watching or umpiring.  General Sengar has explained this aspect of being self-disciplined well. 

The Mantra in this book is all about finding a cause and dedicating wholesomely for it and is sure to achieve success.

Worth a read and strongly recommended for anyone in a leadership role; also for anyone aspiring to be a leader or a golfer or both.

The book costing ₹395 is available @ https://notionpress.com/read/golf-and-life and on amazon.in @ https://www.amazon.in/dp/B09QQKNMT2/

Corrupted Dosa

Recently read a post ‘Online delivery of Masala Dosas is a food ‘hate-crime’. North India must apologise. Its indeed a hate crime!!!  Even the paper thin Dosa is a hate crime the North Indians must tender an apology for!!!

A Dosa is a thin pancake like a crepe originating from South India, made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice.

The paper-thin Dosa is the corrupted form of Dosa.  In my childhood Amma made Dosa on a ten-inch dia stone girdle.  It was thick – the least it was five times thicker lighter and spongier than its paper-thin cousin. These Dosas were characterised by the holes left by the steam evaporating on cooking from the batter.

I joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in 1971 at the age of nine where Dosa was served twice a week – Sunday breakfast and Thursday diner.  The Sunday Dosa was with Sambar and Chutney, but the Thursday Dinner was the best – rarest of rarest combination – Dosa with Chicken Masala Curry – one of the best combinations I have had in my life.  Here too it was the thick and fluffy Dosa which combined well with the gravy.

My introduction to the paper-thin Dosa was at the National Defence Academy.  It never tasted anywhere near what I had at home or at school.  It was too crispy for my liking.  I called it the ‘Corrupt version of the poor Dosa.’  Though corrupt, it was lapped up by the North Indians and the South Indians too followed suit and the thick and original Dosa disappeared from most South Indian restaurants and homes.  Some restaurants now serve it as ‘Set Dosa.’

I recall an incident narrated by Veteran Colonel MA Mathai.  After marriage, on settling in their first military abode in 1985, he and his wife Sainu decided to invite all officers of their Regiment for a Dosa Brunch.  In the morning Sainu made Dosas the way her mother made them – thick and stout.  Neither Captain Mathai nor the officers were too happy about it.

After our marriage, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra in 1989.  During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the following Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it.  I asked for my most relished combination with Dosa – chicken masala curry.  “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply.  I told her that the thick Dosa made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala curry was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had.  She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.

During our Pan-India tour as part of the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1990, at Jabalpur Railway Station, our coach was stationed adjacent to the main platform.  After the industrial visits, while I was strolling on the railway platform in the evening, I came across tow young men from Kerala selling Dosas. They narrated their story as to how they came to Jabalpur and established their business. 

The two unemployed high-school graduate lads landed at Jabalpur on the recommendation of a close relative who was employed with the Ordnance Factory.  They searched for a job and joined the restaurant on the railway platform as dishwashers.  Few months into their work, the restaurant owner was impressed with their dedication and asked them “Can you make Dosas?  There is a lot of demand for it.  There are no good Dosa vends in town.” They took the bait. 

The two men travelled to Kerala to return with a heavy grinder, girdles and other utensils needed to make Dosa.  They commenced their Dosa selling in the restaurant and soon the place became a favourite haunt of the powerful, wealthy and influential people of Jabalpur.  The restaurant owner now came out with a new business model for them.  “You sell your Dosas here and all the money is yours?”

Too tempting an offer to reject!!  They again took the bait.  They sold hundreds of Dosas every evening, collected the cash, went back to their home to soak the rice and lentil overnight.  Next morning, they ground the rice and lentil and fermented it till evening.  In the evening, they established their girdle on the platform, in front of the restaurant.  People came in droves to buy Dosas.  Many sent their tiffin carriers for home delivery. 

The biggest question in their minds was “Why did the owner allow us to sell Dosas and take all the money?”

A month into the new venture, they gathered enough courage to ask the question to the restaurant owner.  “Customers who buy Dosas from you buy coffee too.  I sell over a hundred coffee every evening and I make a Rupee on every coffee. “

The restaurant owner did not kill the geese that laid golden eggs for him, he nurtured them!!!!

Learning and Studying

Two words – studying and learning – have always been interchangeable for me until I joined the Indian Army as a Second Lieutenant in 1982.  That was when I commenced applying the knowledge I had gained – especially in trigonometry and physics – while calculating various ballistic parameters for the long range guns.

Studying was the formal education I received at school and at the Academy where I gained knowledge – the basics – which stood as the foundation for all my learning.  Learning was all about applying the knowledge in many situations and there were many  errors, mistakes, commissions and omissions. I learned more with every passing experience.  While learning, there was always a chance of failure – I won some and lost many.

Let us examine the definitions of the two words:-

  • To Learn – to gain knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something. Learning is absorbing the information, testing its validity to the point of being able to understand the information.
  • To Study – to read, memorise facts, attend school, etc, in order to learn about a subject.  Studying is the act of gathering the information and poring over it, deciding what is relevant and what is not.

One studies to learn.  Many a times one studies a lot, but learns hardly anything.  One tends to forget what one studied, especially when the aim was only to score a few marks in an examination.  Here there is neither any addition to one’s knowledge nor development of any skills.

Studying is pushing and learning is pulling. The content is pushed to the students and learners pull the content what they want to learn.  In order to increase one’s English vocabulary, reading the dictionary alone will not suffice.  It is mere studying. Reading a book and referring to a dictionary is the ideal way as one learns more from the context the word is used than from its dictionary meaning. One may study English grammar for days, but without getting into real communication – both speaking and writing – it’s hardly of any use and one is learning neither the language nor the grammar. We learn the alphabets of a language by-heart, we learn to associate these alphabets to form words to read and write. We learn grammar, but study literature.

In mathematics there are only two digits – 0 and 1 – the rest are all combinations of these. There is only one mathematical operation – addition – subtraction is addition of a negative number, multiplication is continuous addition and division is addition of fractions. If a child learns this basic fact, rest will follow.

Doctors while at medical school memorise all Latin medical terms, and by constant usage familiarise with these terms. They apply their knowledge and learn to diagnose and also carryout a procedure or a surgery.

To be successful in any profession today, studying and earning a degree is not enough. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum educational requirement to become a Lieutenant  in the Army, but  the selection criteria is more about leadership qualities, empathy, problem solving ability, etc.  In today’s digital world with machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, these skills are more important than the marks scored and degrees earned.

For many, studying is associated with reading.  It may be true as one grows into an adult, acquiring knowledge and understanding various concepts. Babies are constantly learning, but are neither studying nor reading. Learning occurs at random too – with one’s observations and correlating the same with the knowledge already gained. Listening to someone well experienced in the field, one learns a lot.  It can be from a new experience, or from what one reads, analyses and perceives.

Studying at school (including home schooling) is vital because it teaches students essential life values. More than studying or learning, it is more about developing social skills and being a team player. Many students realised it during the pandemic.  

School gives the students  the basics –  alphabets, numbers, sounds, arithmetic skills and social skills. It develops problem-solving skills in students.  Expertise of the teacher helps  students understand and gain knowledge. Schools also help develop many hidden talents in students. It guides and motivates students to bring the best out of them. It is also an avenue to interact with other people. It is a place to meet new friends and colleagues. School enhances social skills with students  dealing with different kinds of people.

Owl, Reading, Book, Bird, Study, Animal, Line Art

Learning never exhausts the mind – Leonardo da Vinci

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them – Aristotle

The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you -B.B. King

Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere – A Chinese Proverb